Monday, July 16, 2018


The furore over Shashi Tharoor's remarks over the possibilities of India becoming a "Hindu Pakistan" must have surprised his enemies and his friends in equal measure. It also reminds us, yet again, that we live in a politically surcharged atmosphere where battles can suddenly break out over a gesture, a phrase, a nudge or a wink. Communal emotions have become the sustenance of public life. They are the stuff of headlines and headlines are today the sum total of existence.

Shashi Tharoor has an unusual problem to begin with. Those who hate him are more articulate than those who don't. His quotable English creates more adversaries since angrez is quintessentially anti-national. He also ploughs a lonely furrow although he wears the badge of the Congress Party proudly on his Kurta. He went out of his way to write a whole book explaining why he was a Hindu. But the Hindus who matter in our polity don't believe a word of it.

That must be the reason why his "Hindu Pakistan" jibe kicked up so much dust so suddenly. On the face of it, the gist of what he said would be seen as unimpeachable in non-BJP circles. If the BJP were voted back to power, he said, it would re-write the Constitution "and that will enshrine the principle of Hindu Rashtra that will remove equality for the minorities and that will create a Hindu Pakistan".

That kind of speculation has been aired by others before. The idea of re-writing the Constitution has been publicly promoted by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat himself. Addressing a lawyers' conclave last year, he called for changes in the Constitution "in line with our value system". He specifically demanded a legal system reflecting "Bharatiya ethos".

This is a fully accepted viewpoint from the RSS angle. If Bhagwat put it gently and in respectable phrases, the Hindu Janajagrati Samiti expanded on it in a different tone when it talked of making India a Hindu Rashtra by 2023. The choice of that year could not have been accidental. It actually said that Yogi Adityanath's rise to power in UP had indeed started the process of creating a Hindu Rashtra.

Paradoxically, there is no consensus on what exactly is the definition of Hindu Rashtra. The term has liberal interpretations as well as communal ones. The RSS's communications chief Aniruddha Deshpande saw Hindu Rashtra as a concept based on inclusiveness, which emphasises one's duties to the nation rather than to the Hindu religion. Asserting that religion is a Western concept, he said: "Someone who is born a Hindu but is working against the country's interests is not a Hindu for us. On the contrary, a non-Hindu dedicated to the country's progress is a Hindu to us".

This is as broad-minded a viewpoint as possible, considering that Hindu is a term derived from the Sindhu river and therefore geographical in nature. The spiritual side was covered by Sanatana Dharma, a non-religious term denoting, simply, a concept of Eternal Values.

Unfortunately, Deshpande's generous definition of Hindu Rashtra is not supported by many of his ideological colleagues. An RSS-backed Think Tank in Mumbai recently organised a talk session with a group of authors, columnists and thinkers known for their anti-RSS stance. Many RSS stalwarts objected to this, calling it "appeasement of enemies". One said: "In today's time, those who see the Sangh as enemy should feel isolated, not honoured".

What did he mean by "in today's time?". Clearly hardline Hindutva groups feel that this is their time with a government that promotes their objectives. If these groups get another five years of power, it would be dumb to expect them to waste it. In a country where public debate is not only possible but is the norm, it is legitimate to raise such issues for people to think about.

Shashi Tharoor's point therefore was valid, but perhaps he made a phraseological mistake linking Hinduism with Pakistan, which helped attackers to open fire from multiple angles. Most of the shots were farcical -- that the phrase showed denigration of Indian democracy, that India was being equated with Pakistan, that Islam was being promoted.

All that happened was another reminder that we are a democracy where an extremist ideology using religion as a tool is finding it hard to gain control.That is because the majority of Hindus in this Hindu-majority country vote not as Hindus, but as Indians. In their hands our country and our Constitution and our Sanatana Dharma are safe and will remain safe.

Monday, July 9, 2018


India's biggest achievement since independence is its march to leadership ranks in space technology. In June last year the national space organisation ISRO put into space a rocket as heavy as 200 fully grown elephants, making it a major player in the satellite launch industry alongside the US, France and Russia.

The pioneers who prepared the ground for this great leap forward were Homi Babha and Vikram Sarabhai, men of impeccable scientific credentials. Bhabha pioneered nuclear research while Sarabhai focussed on space and rocketry. Both had the nuclear bomb at the back of their minds, according to Ready to Fire, the important and moving book by Nambi Narayanan, the ISRO scientist who pioneered cryogenic technology in India at great personal cost.

Sarabhai had developed close contacts, says Nambi, with Dadieu, the German rocket engineer. (Germany's V-2 rocket, symbol of its space technology leadership, had stunned Britain in World War II). He also knew Itokawa, specialist on Japan's pencil rocket. Nambi writes: "With faith in the Japanese wisdom on onboard-control systems and the German mastery over fabrication, both not allowed by the US to be put to use by those countries, Sarabhai was trying to forge a deadly brotherhood. The US was ostensibly unhappy".

Then, at 56 Bhabha died in an aircrash in Switzerland in 1966. At 52 Sarabhai died in a hotel room in Trivandrum in 1971 for no apparent reason. In 1994, when ISRO was close to mastering cryogenic technology on its own after having been obstructed by the US, Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumar were arrested, tortured and virtually destroyed by Kerala police in the notorious ISRO spy case. Nambi, a man of almost superhuman willpower, went through it for four years before he could go to the Supreme Court which declared him and others as innocent.

It all started with a Kerala police inspector eyeing a six-foot Maldivian woman. Spurned by her, he set out to get her tied up in legal knots, then found an opportunity to file spying charges against her. The case quickly became a cause celebre used by multiple agencies for multiple purposes. The end result, as summed up by Kumar Chellappan in a 2013 article, was that the case "not only finished the careers of India's two exceptionally brilliant space scientists, but also put the country's cryogenic engine development on hold for more than 19 years".

Nambi Narayanan's account of the drama, subtitled How India and I survived the ISRO spy case, fills us with equal parts of pride and shame. Sarabhai's vision and the dedication of his team of scientists make up an inspiring episode of recent history. It makes us feel that we are a people who can achieve anything if only the dreamers are given a free hand. The next moment, though, reality makes us feel ashamed -- the reality that we will never do well because of the dishonesty and crookedness of those who are in positions of power.

Kerala police, known for its love of third-degree methods and the selfishness of some of its officers, played a dastardly role in the spy case.The CBI itself rejected all its findings and case diaries which "reflect adversely on the methods and intentions of the investigating officers of the Kerala Police".

One bows in awe before Nambi Narayanan who withstood the cruelties of the sadistic police which Sasikumar could not. The first blow landed when they asked him to give the name of a Muslim friend and he, quite honestly, gave the name of his colleague A.P.J.Abdul Kalam. For more than 30 hours he was made to stand, answering questions, taking beatings. When he asked for water, the answer was: "You third-rate criminal, you want water?".

This astonishing man gathered strength by telling himself "I cannot let down Sarabhai, my father, my gurus and myself". As he puts it: "I took deep breaths and stood my ground. I spoke. 'You guys are committing a big crime, and you will be punished for this' ".

It is sickening to learn that a scientist working on a nationally important project became a victim of cunning politicians (Congress leader Oommen Chandy used the ISRO case to get rid of the then Congress chief minister), and scheming police officers (a DGP used the case to malign another officer who stood in the way of his promotion). Nambi Narayanan lost his career, but recovered his honour. May his tribe increase and may he succeed in getting just dessert for those police tormentors found guilty by the CBI itself.

Monday, July 2, 2018


Arun Jaitley and Piyush Goyal are the two most qualified -- shall we say civilised -- men in the Narendra Modi cabinet. Both have distinguished educational background and are recognised as well-informed intellectuals. Their public careers have been impeccable. They fit naturally into refined social circles and are respected for that. Under the influence of politics, however, even such mature minds sometimes get carried away -- and that is disturbing.

Was it necessary for Arun Jaitley, for example, to go to the extent he did in comparing Indira Gandhi with Hitler? Indians need no new messiah to convince them about the tyranny of the Emergency, about the unacceptability of the dynastic system that Indira imposed on the country, about her bid to destroy the judiciary. The people are still punishing her for the evils that she did. This is clear from the Congress becoming a mere also-ran in virtually every state, and Rahul Gandhi, despite his best efforts, being unable to free himself of the dynastic tag.

A nation so unambiguous about Indira's sins knows that she was like Hitler in some ways. But when a political oppositionist like Jaitley says that she imprisoned opponents as Hitler did, he must also accept that she did not kill minorities as Hitler did with the Jews -- and as some in Jaitley's own camp are advocating now. When BJP legislator Lal Singh threatened journalists with the fate of Shujaat Bukhari who was shot dead in Kashmir, he was not compared even to Pramod Muthalik, let alone Hitler.

It all boils down to intolerance of dissent. How Arun Jaitley, a campaigner for the right to dissent during his ABVP days, went to the other extreme as minister is a topic historians must dissect. The change was evident when he became the principal strategist in the 2002 and 2007 Gujarat elections. It was Jaitley who stopped Vajpayee from exercising Raj Dharma in Gujarat following the 2002 riots. Jaitley was the first to propose Modi as BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2014. In the circumstances Jaitley will probably be thinking that he has a special responsibility to defend the style and substance of the Government in which he is second only to the Prime Minister.

Given the heights he occupies, Arun Jaitley dislikes criticism. When BJP's elder statesman Yashwant Sinha criticised the Government, Jaitley called him a "job applicant at 80". When his policies allowed no scope for peer review, specialist advisers such as Arvind Panagariya and Aravind Subramanyam quit. Even the Reserve Bank of India had to re-define autonomy to fit into the Finance Minister's definition of it.

Irony peaked when Jaitley attacked Indira Gandhi's suppression of dissent and said: "If you curb free speech and allow only propaganda, you become the first victim of propaganda". How true even today! An institutionalised fear complex has curbed free speech and promoted propaganda under the current dispensation of which Arun Jaitley is a principal architect.

Piyush Goyal is a pillar of the same dispensation. To understand the enchanting human side of this accomplished gentleman, you only have to see/hear his keynote address at an event in his beloved alma mater, the Don Bosco school in Matunga, Bombay, in 2014. Recalling the discipline he learned and the values he developed under the stern but loving supervision of the Fathers in Don Bosco, Goyal went into sobs and tears as he said that "the heart and soul" he developed in school "will always be in my DNA". He even recited the Lord's Prayer. Such a cultivated liberal not only ended up in a camp where being liberal is equivalent to being anti-national, but also developed an ability to be ungraceful.

Referring to a coach factory project lying dormant in Kerala for 12 years, Goyal's ministry clarified that the plan was virtually abandoned as existing coach factories were enough to meet the requirements of the railways. The Minister could have left it at that. But he added brashly that "railway tracks cannot be built on air". This, after the state government had acquired 439 acres of land six years ago. The comment was out of character. We must infer that both Arun Jaitley and Piyush Goyal have become victims of power and of the consequent assumption that the government of which they are a part is the best thing that has ever happened, or can happen, to India. That conviction makes them feel contemptuous of those who think differently. Why does that remind us of Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Sakshi Maharaj?

Monday, June 25, 2018


Of the many realities refreshed by the ongoing football frenzy, two are revelatory for India. First: Kicking a ball around is an instinctive urge of all humans which explains both the universality and the irresistibility of football. India fell off the grid because of the willingness with which it surrendered its soul to the concocted colonial game of cricket. Second which follows from the first: In a world festival where even countries like Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are stars, India is nowhere to be seen. These fundamentals will not change in the foreseeable future, India being what it has become.

The extent of "filthy lucre" that cricket makes is one reason for the game's anomalous growth in India. The BCCI is known as the richest cricket club in the world. Naturally it attracts politicians and business tycoons as administrators, making a bad situation worse. It also makes the unnatural natural. An honest BJP leader cannot stand the sight of a 24-carat Congressman and both of them will see an NCP leader as a betrayer. Yet Arun Jaitley and Rajeev Shukla and Sharad Pawar are bonded buddies in cricket.

The combination of political weight and money power has helped the BCCI stay above normal democratic scrutinies. It goes its way despite the Supreme Court's ruling that it's not a private body, the Law Commission's proposal that it be brought under the Right To Information Act and the Lodha Committee's recommendations for sweeping reforms. The man who lifted cricket corruption to the level of genius, Lalit Modi, remains beyond the reach of law thanks to the abetment of law-makers.

Football overtakes cricket in corruption because football money is bigger than cricket money. BCCI's net worth is under $ 300 million. Real Madrid's is around $ 3500 million. Even Manchester United, though no match to the Continental or South American giants, has a net worth of $ 2800 million. Individual earnings reflect the same chasm. Virat Kohli, the only Indian in the Forbes list of highest paid athletes, ranked 89th in 2017, with a total pay of $ 22 million (of which 19 million is from endorsements, not cricket). Messi's earnings in this season is $ 146 million and Ronaldo's $ 108 million.

That both Messi and Ronaldo got involved in tax evasion cases is a minor detail. The big story is corruption under the almighty governing body of football, FIFA. Sap Blatter, long-time president, was so powerful that he was considered unshakable -- until 2015 when a $ 1.7 million bribery scandal did him in. The crowning piece was awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, obviously for major kickbacks. America's FBI also got involved in investigations, finding that well above $ 150 million was paid in bribes for marketing rights. Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials. What was revealed was a tale of "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted corruption, racketeering and conspiracy".

Yet football marches triumphantly on. Because football is human nature. Football is owned by people whoever they are and wherever they are -- by Icelanders and Algerians, by Africans and Scandinavians, by the Japanese and the Mexicans. If cricket produces heroes like Tendulkar, football produces gods like Pele. And Pele said it all when he said, "Brazil eats, sleeps and drinks football. It lives football". To all mankind, football is heartball.

Even its sordid moments have a touch of class. Who can forget the drama of the 2006 World Cup final when the incomparable Zinedine Zidane floored Italy's Marco Materazzi with a mighty headbutt. It was Zidane's last-ever match as a player. Gossip that the Italian had insulted the Frenchman's sister has been rejected by the Italian. But he did admit later that he had used "stupid words" to rile Zidane. The unforgettable incident ended Zidane's career on a sour note, but it did not affect his profile as a football great. (Marco Materazzi later had a stint in Chennai as coach for Chennayins).

This year's World Cup is remarkable for the preparations completed by Russia on time -- 12 stadiums, some of them brand new and considered architectural masterpieces. Remember the 2010 Commonwealth Games when we could not get even toilets completed? Small wonder that Bhaichung Bhutia and I.M.Vijayan believe India won't play in the World Cup in the foreseeable future. How can it when football is in the hands of a politician like Praful Patel, remembered for crippling Air-India when that airline was in his hands? We should be grateful that we can at least watch other countries on the screen.

Monday, June 18, 2018


What makes Indian politics unique is its focus on the self. Every politician is convinced that it is his right to become a minister. Every minister believes that it is his right to remain a minister as long as he lives. Every minister wants his son, too, to become a minister by right. These verities of democracy are again kicking up storms in Karnataka and Kerala -- Karnataka because it is still in the process of settling down after an election, and Kerala because some of the country's most crooked brains are re-inventing the technology of party politics.

To understand how retrograde this political culture is, we must look at what happens in mature democracies. In Britain, for example, there are four former prime ministers still around. The oldest of them, John Major, lives quietly, acknowledging old age at 75. Tony Blair keeps himself busy running a think tank called the Institute of Global Change. Gordon Brown, a PhD, holds unpaid positions in organisations devoted to education and economic policy. David Cameron contributes his time and energy to Alzheimer's Research UK and the National Citizens Service. None of them interferes with politics or with the affairs of the parties they once led. When they retire, they retire.

When Indian politicians retire, they don't. Consider the case of H.D.Devegowda. At 85 he is frail but playing politics fulltime. He has made one son chief minister for the second time, another son a senior minister and is busy grooming a grandson for Parliament. All these are secondary manoeuvres for the grand finale of himself becoming Prime Minister again.

It's nearly a month since Karnataka's new chief minister was sworn in. But the cabinet is still not in place because the fights over seats and portfolios are in full swing. All except Jaffar Sherief, 84, and S.M.Krishna, 85, want cabinet posts. Roshan Baig, for example, has been a minister for many years, handling Home, Tourism, Infrastructure, Information, Urban Development. This time the Muslim seat was given to a newcomer and Baig organised a noisy rally of supporters in front of the Congress office. He is still sulking.

Another crowd of supporters raised slogans asking for a cabinet post for MLA Haris. This is the leader who was grooming his son for Congress leadership until the son led a pack of rowdies to attack a diner in a pub; after nearly four months in jail, he got bail. A minister given Higher Education revolted because he wanted Co-operation. CM's brother and PWD Minister Revanna, already dubbed super CM, ordered a mass transfer of officers including some in Irrigation Minister Shivakumar's kingdom. Result: Chaos. How powerful is the urge to serve the nation!

In Kerala there was no election and the Left Government is well entrenched. Yet, an earthquake took place following the manoeuvres of Three Musketeers of extraordinary talent in political plotting -- Oommen Chandy whose cunning is unmatched, Kunjalikutty, a Muslim Leaguer notorious for wiliness, and K.M.Mani who believes that God created the universe for his and his family's enjoyment. Mani has his own party which he uses for striking deals. Recently he left the Congress-led UDF and created the impression that he would join the Communist-led LDF while not ruling out an alliance with the BJP.

The Chandi-Kunjali-Mani axis struck a deal last week so secretly that their own party people were surprised. Mani rejoined the UDF and the UDF surrendered its Rajya Sabha seat for Mani's son Jose. The irony was that Jose was a sitting member of the Lok Sabha. For the first time in Kerala's history, a Lok Sabha member gave up his seat to become a Rajya Sabha member. Young Congressmen and respected leaders like V.M.Sudheeran exploded in righteous indignation. But they should be grateful that the Three Musketeers did not make Jose a member of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha simultaneously as well as a Central Minister and a state minister at the same time. (Rule out nothing. Cha-Ku-Ma's triple genius can work wonders).

Girish Karnad's Tughlaq is full of worldly wisdom. Without the shadow of a doubt his characters proclaim: "First, one must have power -- the authority to rape. Then everything takes on meaning". And again: "One should be able to rob a man and then stay there to punish him for getting robbed. That's called class".

From H.D.Devegowda to K.M.Mani, from Amit Shah to Sharad Pawar, they all have the gumption to do whatever it takes to get whatever they want. That's called class.